Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Ash Wednesday


Rev Jeremy Bevan

What’s it like to imagine yourself dead? To see yourself no longer able to amend your life, to
make those changes you always intended to make? That’s an exercise the late Gerry Hughes
asked readers of his book God of Surprises to have a go at. Write your own obituary, he said:
focus on how you’d like people to remember you, and let that be your spur to putting things
right with God so you can live up to those obituary expectations.

The prophet Joel asked his hearers to do something similar. We don’t know when he wrote,
but his times seem to have been marked by multiple catastrophes, giving him a strong sense
God was calling for urgent change in the individual lives of his people and their life together.
The plagues of locusts, drought and famine may in some way have been linked with foreign
invasion, but whatever the order of events, things had reached crisis point. Relief – and real
change – depended on penitence, on repentance, on all the people together being willing to
leave behind indulgent appetites, exploitation, indifference, as if parting company with the
corpses of their old selves to renew right relations with God: “Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your
hearts and not your clothes”. And how graciously God is then ready to forgive, when we
creatures of dust put off what leads to death, and turn, and live again.

While ‘natural’ disasters don’t always have an obvious human cause, responses to such
threats can accentuate all that is wrong with a society, spotlighting our everyday selfishness
and indifference. So in Türkiye, people’s houses have become their tombs after corruption
meant they weren’t built to withstand an earthquake as they should’ve been. We’ve all seen
on our TV screens the heart-rending lament, the weeping, the mourning of terrible, perhaps
avoidable loss. And whether the threat is earthquake, or famine, or global warming, are we
here today any less in need of such heart-rending lament, mourning and penitence?

As Joel sees it, lament for sin, grieving over it as though for a death is a necessary precursor
for repentance. But on that sorrowing pathway from the grave when we have left behind
the sin that makes us die inside a little more each day, our God meets u. God who is, as Joel
says, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That’s a refrain
that runs through our Old Testament, like a bias in the character of God. The Jewish rabbis
of old had a beautiful saying that reflected this: “Make an opening for repentance as narrow
as the eye of a needle, and I will open for you gates through which wagons and coaches can
pass.” In our weakness we need divine help, God’s grace and mercy, in living better: the
promise of God’s horsepower so to speak, the strength of the Holy Spirit, to live as we are
called to live, and as we ought.

In meeting together this Ash Wednesday to receive the sign of the cross, we will be marked
as distinctive people. We’re in good company. When Joel called people of his time to gather
for a solemn assembly, they acted distinctively: put off everything else, apparently including
a wedding, to seek together God’s help in the face of looming disaster. Those looking on in Joel’s time must have noticed something remarkable, as they may well do when we depart
this solemn assembly, marked, as they were then, young and old together, by outward signs
of an inward and mysterious grace. May we depart knowing how we need to change, and to
be together the change we seek. And believing that the future lies mysteriously with God as
it does within us, that it will come in the resurrection power of the Spirit of hope at work in
us for God’s purposes in our world. So be greatly encouraged today by Joel and his words of
hope: “Yet even now”, says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart.”